March 1st, 2005

me: ooh!

Prague, Day 1. Adventures in transport. And beer.

I arrived at Gatwick too late to get a window seat on the lane. Still, as we circled into Prague, I had a decent view out the window past the adorably fussy middle-aged couple to my right. I watched the Czech landscape tilt into view and while I could have dug out my digital camera, it was one of those times when I felt that recording would have detracted from the looking. Maybe it was just all the novels I've read, but I got a profound sense of the age of the place from its nearly flat reaches of snow-covered land. After so many centuries of civilization, it surprises me that the presence of humanity hasn't eroded it into nothing. To me, as an American whose country has so short a history, as if all of the water molecules should have been sucked out of the air, the fertility from the soil, the vitality from the people, weighted down by their ancestry.

After a touchdown so smooth I could barely tell we'd landed, I threaded my way quickly through customs and out into the terminal where I was relieved to find the ATMs and the transport information desk easily. The man at the ticket counter sighed heavily as I passed over my 2000 Kc (~£50) note. I don't think there's a quicker way to identify yourself as a tourist in Prague than by the enormous bills the ATMs dispense. I had my first immersion experience not five minutes later when I got on the 119 bus and attempted to time-stamp my three-day ticket, for which I was never checked once during my trip. I walked up to the little yellow box and I couldn't find the slot for my ticket, only a small, neatly lettered sign in Czech. The bus driver gestured frantically at me to move onto the bus. I saw the other passengers crowding around a different little yellow box with a slot instead of a sign. This is how I learned that "Mimo Provoz" means "Out of Order."

It was surprisingly easy to navigate the metro. I spent perhaps 20 minutes getting to Hlavni nadrazi, where I was to meet Becca (becala) and Fraoigh. They got lost finding their way to the station from Staré Mestro (Old Town) and so I whiled away the time watching a group of arrogant, good-looking bored young men alternately torment the fattest pigeons in the universe near the food court and whistle appreciatively at passing women.

Becca and Fraoigh greeted me enthusiastically and we headed out of the station into the biting cold. We dropped off my bags at the terminally hip Hostel Elf and paid for two nights' stay. A bed in a six-room dormitory costs 590 Kc total (~£15). Becca and Fraoigh were hungry, since it was nearly 2 pm, so we went in search of Genuine Czech cuisine, otherwise known as meat, potatoes and cabbage. We found it in Staré Mestro in a nice modernized beer hall called Kolkovna. I had my first 0.3L of Pilsner Urquell, followed by the fiery Czech liquor called becherovka. My lunch, Moravian Sparrow (which is actually pork) was delicious. We lingered for a bit, digesting, and went to Old Town Square to take pictures and see the astronomical clock. We had just missed the antics of the clock, but we got to hear very loud dance music being played by what looked like student protestors standing in a booth behind a sign reading "We Know Our Rights." One had a megaphone, but of course he was speaking rapid-fire Czech so we didn't know what he was saying. The music suddenly faded and a chorus of boos heralded the approach of a police van. The cops don't stop them from playing songs, but the volume was much reduced for the remainder of their loitering. It went back up once they departed.

We wandered around for a bit, taking turns snapping photos with my Lomo, and stopped in a tiny bar for a fortifying beer before returning to watch the Astronomical Clock. We rushed back two minutes before the hour to join a huge crowd waiting with bated breath for the extremely anti-climactic clockwork puppet display that lasts, at most, thirty seconds. Giggling, we walked into the old town. Rounding a corner, I spotted chocolate out of the corner of my eye. We stopped for hot chocolate. I take that back, we stopped for the best hot chocolate any of us have ever had. The sun was setting and we've been told that the Charles Bridge at night is not to be missed. We took photos along the Vltava River as we followed its banks to the bridge. We sauntered over, listening to the rush of the water. The religious statues for which the bridge is famous receded into the background, allowing us to appreciate the views of night-time Prague that it affords. I furtively watched a couple kissing under a lamp-post and it made me smile. A beggar got down on his knees next to the bridge and pressed his face against the ground with his cap in front of him. When he looked up, Becca could see his face contorted in a permanent grimace. She pointed him out and I felt my gut wrench.

We found another little out-of-the-way place to have a beer and a light dinner of shared appetizers – pickled gherkins, mild white cheese and thick bread. We talked until we were warm enough to venture out into the freezing night and return to the vicinity of the hostel. We decided to check out the Rock Club bar, a little dive just down the block from the Elf. We drank and talked while an un-eye-linered jeans-clad Ozzy Osbourne belted out Black Sabbath songs on the tiny television near the ceilings. Five rounds cost us 390 Kc (~£10) and the bartender comped Fraoigh an extra beer. We discovered we were quite sauced when we stood up and stumbled to the dorms to pass out.